It’s not easy being emoji, especially if you’re a little too emo for the job.
That’s the premise of The Emoji Movie, an animated comedy about the limited inner lives of all those cartoon pictograms that live in our phones.
It’s the main problem for protagonist Gene, voiced by T.J. Miller. He, like all his digital race, is supposed to express one idea – in Gene’s case, it’s “meh” – in texts, posts and e-mails made by the phone’s owner, a teenage boy named Alex.
But Gene was born without a filter, and when it’s time to upload his image to the internet, he gets so nervous that an insanely incomprehensible picture of conflicting feelings is sent to a girl Alex likes instead.
Fearing – rightly – that Gene’s glitch will cause Alex to wipe his phone (and their world), Texto-polis’ ever-upbeat evil honcho Smiler (Maya Rudolph) essentially tries to have him deleted.
This sends Gene on a journey of escape and discovery through the phone’s apps – Candy Crush, Spotify, Just Dance, YouTube, piracy, etc – in hopes of reaching the legendary Cloud, where he believes he can be fixed.
But will he discover that this might not be the right solution to his brokenness?
“The best animated movies are not just goofy little silly things running around,” observes Tony Leondis, an industry veteran since he started as a story artist on the 1998 Prince Of Egypt, who wrote and directed The Emoji Movie.
“They really have a story and thematics, and that’s what we knew we wanted to do with this movie. I looked down at my phone and saw these emojis and thought, what a great world that no one has explored yet. And once you extrapolate how emojis are always doing that same darn expression all day, what must that be like?
“What would happen if something upset that status quo?” Leondis continues. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, it’s an emoji with every expression.’ And as we know, in the world different is threatening, today’s world, more than ever.”
On his journey to change or not change, Gene is accompanied by new pal Hi-5 (James Corden) and tech-savvy punkette Jailbreak (Anna Faris), and chased by his meh parents (Jennifer Coolidge and a perfectly voice-cast Steven Wright) and Smiler’s fearsome delete-bots.
Along the way he encounters trolls, always-happy-to-see-you-again Spam and a very elegant-sounding fellow emoji, Poop (Star Trek, X-Men and Shakespeare eminence Sir Patrick Stewart).
“We had the idea to not do the expected thing,” explains the film’s producer, Michelle Raimo Kouyate.
“You know, Poop is a very popular emoji character, but we didn’t want to be scatological, and we had this idea that he should be upper crust and not really in on the joke.
“Patrick Stewart was the name that came to mind immediately — we’re enormous fans — and he got it and said yes right away.”
And then there’s the most iconic emoticon of all. Rudolph says she wasn’t intimidated about stepping into the role of the First Emoji.
“Smiler’s fun,” says the comic actress and voiceover veteran.
“She’s always happy when you look at her, and she gets away with almost murder because she’s smiling all the time. And she knows it, which makes her so evil and wonderful.”
But not easy.
“Every time I recorded, Tony was in the room with me and he’d say, ‘Deliver that with a smile’,” Rudolph reveals. “Which is incredibly difficult! It’s certainly not a human response to anything – it would make you a crazy person – and that’s why she comes off as so maniacal.”
The Emoji Movie has been very carefully worked out to impart worthy life lessons to the younger segments of the audience, and to older ones too.
Every app Gene and the gang work through was chosen to help a character overcome an issue: Candy Crush for Gene’s fear of deletion, trash for Hi-5’s feeling that he’s no longer trending, a 3D Instagram world in which the meh parents finally open up emotionally, etc.
And there are larger points made regarding the world outside the phone; ie, ours.
“There’s definitely a moment in the movie when it shows every single person on their phone and people literally bumping into each other because they’re on their phones as opposed to talking to each other,” Rudolph notes. “It’s the idea that phones run their lives.”
“The point is that, yes, phones are something we use and something we can use to bring us together, but we also have to have that human connection,” Kouyate explains.
“What I love about emojis, and why I think people love them so much, is the human heart has found a way to express itself even in a world of technology,” Leondis observes.
“When my mother sends me an emoji, it really means something; it makes me smile, it touches my heart. So I feel like we are in a technological world, and I don’t know if that’s going to change, but the human heart finds ways to crack through it. Specifically with emojis, that’s what it’s all about.” – The Daily News/Tribune News Service/Bob Strauss